Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Melbotis Mailbag: The League's Comic Book Continuity Manifesto

D. Loyd included this question in his Mellie Noms:

Why does the League obsess about Continuity in the DC world?

Good question, D.

For those of you who do not read comic books, comics work a LOT like soap operas. The Spider-Man comics that are released today under the name "The Amazing Spider-Man" follow the adventures of the same Peter Parker kids fell in love with in 1963. From a certain perspective, it's all been one long, continuous story for more than forty years. For good or ill, it's also been a story told by a long list of writers, editors and artists.

There are also multiple Spider-Man comics, and some have come and gone over the years, but Spidey usually has two comics going on at any time. This is usually where new readers notice continuity problems as it's tough to figure out when the events in Amazing Spider-Man are taking place versus the events in Spectacular Spider-Man.

Just to get complicated, Spidey lives in a world populated by a wide array of heroes, which means he may also appear in other comics. He might guest star in Captain America, which means that, from a reader's perspective, in six months Spidey needs to remember who Cap is and what events took place over in Cap's title.

It's supposed to be the job of the editor to make sure that there are no oversights in continuity. One of the great joys of comics is the history that surrounds the major comics and characters. The characters don't forget what's come before. They do refer to prior events, and they discuss them from time to time (or give you the necessary exposition in a thought-bubble). As a kid I first learned the names of the editors at Marvel as the editors would add an asterisk and a small box to a panel that contained dicussion of prior events. Spidey might say "Last time I fought Doc Ock I threw a brick at him.*" And then the editor would have a little pane that said "* in issue #187 -Exposition Lovin' Ralph".

As a reader, you wanted to know what was going on that made Spidey throw a brick at Doc Ock. So off you'd go to find a back issue at your local comic shop. The real point, of course, was to let you know when and how events occured. I learned about the entire storylines for Dark Phoenix and Days of Future Past in this manner before ever reading the stories.

Marvel also wisely had instituted a policy that said "assume every comic is the first comic that somebody ever picked up". I think the policy has been abandoned under Quesada for a while, but may be on the comeback. What the policy meant for editors was that any issue of a new comic might contain lots of those little asterisks. It also meant characters called each other by name a little too often, and they spent more time than a DragonBall Z character explaining their powers. They might also spend a lot of time thinking about the meaning of a fight during the middle of a fight.

As a kid, to me, that meant I was discovering a whole new world which had a rich history, where actions had consequence and meaning, and that these imaginary worlds were a heck of a lot more interesting than Pencewood Drive.

My point here is that the editors may have made the wrong decision when it comes to new readership. I'd heard that a lot of the old Marvel practices had been scrapped because continuity was too burdensome to new readers. To a potential casual reader, sure. But to the little geeks just discovering comics, scrapping continuity and references to the past means there's nothing behind the latest issue. No continuity means that there's no world to discover and appreciate, and that each issue is as disposable as the last episode of Power Rangers. Continuity and editorial control of continuity put a challenge to new readers, one that is not impossible, and one that's enjoyable to overcome as they dig out the lore and missing pieces that make up the comic they hold in their hand.

As an adult reader who knows his way around the Marvel and DCU fairly well, the need to continue to learn more and more about comics hasn't really gone away. I'm constantly learning new things about the comic publishing industry, about the folks behind the comics, the kinds of stories that were told, etc... and I still unearth new tidbits about the characters that make up the roster of the DCU. That's the fuel that sets the fire of the historian side of my comic geekiness.

To more directly answer D. Loyd's question of why I care about Continuity at age 31: What is the point of reading a story if any impact will be immediately erased by the whims of the next creative team?

I'm going to use character death repeatedly as an example, partly because the death of a character is a definite terminal point in any narrative, partly because it's terribly abused in comics, and partly because it's a lot less picky than some geeky things I could point out.

If I read a well-written story in which, say, The Flash kills the Trickster, and part of that story is that everyone knows The Flash killed The Trickster, (a) it's not going to make sense when the Trickster pops up again four months from now because "Brave and the Bold wants" to use The Trickster and, last I checked, he was dead. (b) If other characters are aware that The Flash is capable of murder, wouldn't they treat him with the proper caution? If never refer to those events again, doesn't that leave sort of a gap? (c) What did Flash learn from his experience? If Trickster never died, than we assume Flash never learned that lesson. (d) if Flash mentions the death in his own comics, and, so, say, as promise to never kill again, the Flash starts wearing yellow trunks... it won't make sense if he's wearing trunks when he comes up the Trickster again in two years becasue he was aline in "The Brave and the Bold".

Yes, these things happen.

Now multiply that by dozens of comics coming out every month, twelve months a year. It's a daunting task for an editor to keep up with, but the fans of the comics can do it, and they're spending money, not earning it.

Comics have enough problems with logic and time compression. In spite of those short fallings, what they can provide is a continuous story in which the characters grow and learn lessons, just as characters on a television program can grow and learn lessons. While some mistakes and changes are inevitable (and some, may, in fact, improve the overall logic of the comic) blatant disregard for the events of a story which many or most readers know shows a lack of respect for long time readers who have been the ones to support a title.

Similar to a television program which has multiple seasons, fans would not tolerate, say, a dead character reappearing without explanation when a new season debuts. I do not want to see movie sequels in which dead characters suddenly return to life because the writers decided they liked a death scene in the original, but they really wanted that guy, after all. (How would Godfather II have been if Sonny had just pulled up to the lake house with no explanation?). I don't want to read a book where characters are impossible to track and suddenly walk into a room when we believe they're on a boat somewhere in the Pacific. I want comics to show the same, basic respect for my intelligence.

It is true that many creative teams do find themselves painted into a corner by the work of previous creative teams. I don't find this to necessarily mean that the previous work should simply be ignored. Writers like Geoff Johns have shown heroic efforts in streamlining continuities, finding ways for apparent continuity flaws to co-exist, and basically writing to the situation rather than pretending like it never happened.

It is, in my opinion, the editor and writer's job to ensure continuity remains intact in mainline comic books. Action Comics should not contradict itself as team after team is inevitably replaced. If the writers and editors wish to tell a story which contradicts continuity, the story should be strong enough to carry itself as a one-shot or limited series. Otherwise, it is the writer's duty to find the logic in altering the continuity one way or another in their story-telling.

The popular stance four years ago was that continuity was for saps and that it damaged the industry. What the writers were publically stating was that they were being given writing jobs based upon success elsewhere, and they didn't have the appropriate knowledge to complete the job they'd been recruited to do. And, of course, they couldn't be bothered to spend a few hours reading comics to see what was going on with a title before they took it over.

What DC has managed to prove since Identity Crisis is that continuity does matter. Readers will tend to pick up additional comics if they are somehow tied together. Readers will tend to stick with a title if they don't feel abandoned by the editors. And you can explain and fix all of your continuity problems with a Crisis when things get out of hand.

No comments: